GEORGE GERSHWIN

RHAPSODY IN BLUE

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 16 Minutes
Genre: Rhapsody
Time of Creation: 1924
World Premiere: February 12, 1924 (New York City)

Table of Contents

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 5 Sentences

The Rhapsody in Blue by the American composer George Gershwin is a piece for solo piano and jazz band, often called the first “American symphony”. What makes it special is the combination of different musical styles, such as jazz, blues, classical solo concerto and symphonic music. George Gershwin was persuaded or “forced” to compose it by Paul Whiteman (the bandleader of the premiere band) – Whiteman had simply had an announcement of the composition put in the newspaper, although Gershwin had not even agreed to it yet. The work was therefore written under great time pressure in a period of only five weeks. At the premiere, at which George Gershwin himself took over the piano part, well-known people of the music world were present, for example Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Kreisler and Leopold Stokowski.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Highlight 1: Glissando beginning

This is one of the most famous beginnings in classical music, even though it was actually intended to be different: Gershwin originally intended it to be just an “ordinary” rise (pitch for pitch). During a rehearsal, the clarinetist Ross Gorman played the second half of the rise as a glissando (i.e. as a glide from one pitch to another). Gershwin was so enthusiastic about this that he adopted this version:

Highlight 2: Virtuoso piano passages

Although the Rhapsody in Blue seems so loose and relaxed, the piano part is really not easy. Quite the contrary. Many passages are virtuosic and technically challenging. One example:

Highlight 3: Broad, melodic middle section

You could probably tell that Gershwin was pragmatically inclined by the backstory to the glissando beginning. It was no different with the middle section: here he left his sketchbook to his brother Ira Gershwin and let him choose a musical theme for the middle section. The result was this:

Highlight 4: Conclusion

After piano and orchestra have mostly taken turns throughout the piece, they do come together at the end:

3 Questions and Answers about Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Question 1: Are there several versions of Rhapsody in Blue?

Yes. After the premiere in 1924, two more versions (1926 and 1942) were made for a larger orchestration. The 1942 version is the one most often played today. Since 2017, there has also been a big band version by German saxophonist Benjamin Steil.

Question 2: Was the premiere performance of Rhapsody in Blue successful?

While Rhapsody in Blue was mostly well received by the audience at the premiere, the critics’ verdict was divided: Some wrote that Gershwin had coined a new style, while others found the piece simply weak, banal and kitschy.

Question 3: What is a rhapsody?

“Rhapsody” originally means “recited poem.” In music today, a piece that is not bound to any particular form is called a rhapsody.

2 Recommended Recordings of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

Recording 1: Michel Camilo, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, hr Symphony Orchestra (Live, 2016)

I LOVE this recording, in which Michel Camilo (piano), Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), and the hr Symphony Orchestra “jazz” through Rhapsody in Blue at an open-air concert with A LOT of good humor:

Recording 2: Peter Donohoe, Sir Simon Rattle, London Sinfonietta (Studio, 1987)

This older recording with Peter Donohoe (piano), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) and the London Sinfonietta is also recommended:

1 Quote about Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

This composition shows extraordinary talent, as it shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk, struggling with a form of which he is far from being master.... In spite of all this, he has expressed himself in a significant and, on the whole, highly original form.... His first theme... is no mere dance-tune... it is an idea, or several ideas, correlated and combined in varying and contrasting rhythms that immediately intrigue the listener. The second theme is more after the manner of some of Mr. Gershwin's colleagues. Tuttis are too long, cadenzas are too long, the peroration at the end loses a large measure of the wildness and magnificence it could easily have had if it were more broadly prepared, and, for all that, the audience was stirred and many a hardened concertgoer excited with the sensation of a new talent finding its voice.

Olin Downes (contemporary critic of the New York Times)

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